‘The best politician of my generation’

Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon commends Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon commends Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

Defeated in the May 2 federal election in the West Quebec riding of Pontiac, Cannon strode into a meeting of the Liberal’s youth wing Saturday to take part in a panel discussion. Cannon was invited to the event by the Liberals but few people knew he was attending until he walked in. But his arrival got tongues wagging about a possible return to politics for Cannon or even a run, one day, for the leader’s job should Premier Jean Charest leave.

The veteran politician immediately moved to quash the speculation. “There’s no race in the Liberal Party of Quebec,” Cannon said. “Jean Charest is an exceptional man, probably the best politician of my generation at least. I am convinced Mr. Charest will be there to direct the troops in a future electoral victory.”

It’s perhaps mildly curious that Mr. Cannon didn’t mention Stephen Harper here and it’s unclear what he means by “my generation,” but it’s not unreasonable to say Jean Charest might be the “best” politician of what might be called the Post-Chretien Era.

For the sake of argument, we’ll generally limit this to Canadian politics since 2003 and those who’ve had their greatest successes in the last eight years. And we’ll also separate the politician (whose primary job is to win votes) from the premier or prime minister (whose primary job, at least in theory, is to effectively govern the province or country). If a politician’s primary task is to get elected and a party leader’s primary task is to lead his party to victory and if we generally accept that party leaders dominate our politics, there are probably a half dozen politicians in this conversation—Mr. Charest, Mr. Harper, Dalton McGuinty, Danny Williams, Gary Doer and Gordon Campbell*.

Mr. Charest was leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party from 1993 to 1997. In the one election in which he was leader, the PCs won 20 seats, an improvement of 18 seats, but not enough to lift the party out of fifth place. In 1998, he led the Quebec Liberals into an election and won the popular vote, but finished well back of the Parti Quebecois in seats. In 2003, the Liberals won 76 of 125 seats. In 2007, they were reelected with 48 of 125 seats. In 2008, they won 66 of 125 seats.

Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals lost the Ontario election in 1999. In 2003, they won with 72 of 103 seats. In 2008, they were reelected with 71 of 107 seats.

Mr. Williams became leader of Newfoundland’s PC party in 2001. Two years later, the PCs won 34 of 48 seats. In 2007, they were reelected with 44 of 48 seats.

Mr. Doer became leader of the Manitoba NDP in 1988. The New Democrats failed to top the PCs in 1988, 1990 and 1995, but won 32 of 57 seats in 1999. Four years later, the NDP won 35 of 57 seats. And four years after that they won 36 of 57 seats.

Mr. Campbell, after seven years as mayor of Vancouver, became leader of the B.C. Liberal party in 1993. In 1996, the Liberals won the popular vote, but the NDP won six more seats. In 2001, the Liberals won 77 of 79 seats. In 2005, they were reelected with 46 of 79 seats. In 2009, they won 49 of 85 seats.

Mr. Harper became leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002 and then leader of the reconstituted Conservative party in 2004. The Conservatives couldn’t defeat the Liberals in that year’s election, but won 124 of 308 seats in 2006 to take power. In 2008, the Conservatives won 143 of 308 seats. This year they won 166 of 308 seats.

By wins and losses then, here’s how they compare.

Charest 3-2 record as a party leader. Two majorities, one minority.
McGuinty 2-1 record as a party leader. Two majorities.
Williams 2-0 record as a party leader. Two majorities.
Doer 3-3 record as a party leader. Three majorities.
Campbell 3-1 record as party leader. Three majorities.
Harper 3-1 record as a party leader. One majority, two minorities.

Past that, the discussion obviously comes down to the importance, meaning, circumstance and impressiveness of those victories, not to mention what might be said about each’s relative abilities to sway public sentiment. You could, for instance, consider how well any of them brought the public around to support specific policies.

Personally I think the choice, given the extent and significance of their accomplishments, probably comes down to Mr. Charest or Mr. Harper. And it’s probably a toss-up between those two.

*The one wild card here would be Jack Layton, who has never led his party to victory in a general election, but who has managed historic success all the same. In four federal elections, he’s taken the NDP from 13 seats to 19 seats to 29 seats to 37 seats to 103 seats, decimating the Bloc and passing the Liberals in the process.